Air University Review, March-April 1984
Major Thomas G. Waller, Jr., USA
MAO ZEDONGS peoples war has been a much-studied but ill-understood concept. Political scientists, journalists, and military analysts have easily revealed its strengths and readily identified its weaknesses. But few have adequately explained its military fundamentals or its surprising persistence at the center of Chinese military thought. Looking at it from a historical perspective, we see that it has evolved from a strategy of revolution, to a doctrine of national defense, and finally to a sophisticated system of nuclear and conventional deterrence. Military men in China have clashed over a wide range of issues, but they have shown a remarkable unity in their loyalty to the military principles of people's war.
Since the Korean War, commentators in the People's Republic of China repeatedly have stressed the need to build a national defense structure based on the concept of "people's war under modern conditions." What they advocate with this expression seems clear to Western observers--keep the terminology of the outdated people's war strategy, but construct a defense force that can realistically confront a technologically and organizationally modern foe, such as the Soviet Union or the United States. The typical theme of Western analyses is that China is in mortal danger until she modernizes her military, which she cannot do before achieving full economic modernization. In the interim, China must live with operational concepts that are fundamentally unsound.1 Obviously born of necessity, people's war remains in Western eyes the no-choice alternative that will one day be discarded in favor of a more modern, realistic approach to national defense.
A troubling dilemma for the growing battery of analysts from academic, government, and press circles, however, is that despite the logic of modernization, there is little real evidence that the Chinese intend to abandon people's war as the basis of their national defense policies. Dr. Paul H. B. Godwin calls people's war under modern conditions a "transitional defense strategy."2 A recent CIA study speaks of "limited progress" and the conditions needed for "success" of the defense modernization program.3 Such conclusions imply that major revisions of China's policies are around the corner. A clear understanding of the nature of such revisions, however, is lacking.
I shall not attempt here to assess the long-term goals of Chinese national defense policy. Neither shall I evaluate the current strategic capabilities of China's armed forces. Without a broader understanding of the concept of people's war, such analyses seem problematic. Instead, I shall review people's war from a historical perspective and suggest that--regardless of political trends--Chinese strategic thought has shown remarkable consistency. To do this, one must first untangle the military essentials in people's war doctrine from changes that have other, perhaps confusing, applications. Once these essentials have been identified, the overall direction of Chinese defense modernization will be more apparent.
The rather recent phrase "people's war under modern conditions" suggests consistency with past policies and concepts. Therefore, we must begin by examining the early formulation of the doctrine. That people's war was a successful basis for revolution in the forties (and was exported as such in the fifties and sixties) tends to inhibit our understanding of the military fundamentals that make it effective as a basis for national defense. To understand people's war's national defense aspects, one must separate basic doctrine from other "Maoist" concepts and restrict its scope to the principles of organization and application of military force. It may be useful also to note that the fundamental tenets of people's war have fueled many political debates in China during the past fifty years, in part because People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals and strategists of ten have been political actors, as well as military thinkers. Thus, while their particular policies and methods may have been attacked by critics with differing political philosophies, the military principles behind their policies caused little disagreement.
Mao Zedong, of course, espoused the essentials of the doctrine in a series of military writings produced after years of experience in a life-or-death struggle against the Kuomintang.4 Since the birth of the PLA in 1927, Communist forces had been technologically inferior to their foes; and the first tenet of people's war recognized the relative permanence of that inferiority. Mao preached the superiority of "men over weapons," which, in a military sense, meant that any lack of firepower or technology would be compensated for in superior morale and motivation. In the Chingkang Mountains in the early 1930s, Mao first addressed the soldiers' material needs, mostly food and regular pay. By promoting land redistribution, he gained the loyalty and service of the local populace. He also called for democratic relations between officers and men (or in military terms, leadership by example). Finally, he used political indoctrination to instill a sense of purpose and to provide battlefield motivation.5
By relying on superior morale, Mao hoped to minimize his army's technological inferiority. By relying on a superiority of numbers, the second tenet of people's war, he sought to minimize technological deficiencies further and capitalize on an obvious Chinese strength. Superiority of numbers could come either locally or theaterwide by enlisting not just regular soldiers in a campaign but also the mass of citizenry. In people's war, civilians become replacements for medics, intelligence and security personnel, supply and engineer laborers, or guerrilla fighters. Such a war environment requires a total war commitment of a supporting populace. In Mao's words, the army must "create a vast sea in which to drown the enemy."6 In this way, the Red Army was able to outnumber the Kuomintang (KMT) army on a local level, enabling not only its survival but ultimately its triumph.
Finally, people's war embraces the principle of defense-offense. The order of this compound principle is important. Mao taught that the object of war is "to preserve oneself and destroy the enemy." Even though technologically inferior, the mobilized masses would achieve ultimate victory through a three-stage conflict. First, in the strategic defensive stage, the enemy is "lured in deep," overextended, and isolated. Then, in the strategic stalemate phase, the Chinese strength of morale and numbers is brought to bear in a guerrilla war of attrition. Finally, through a strategic offensive, enemy strength is reduced to parity and then inferiority, after which a transition to regular warfare occurs to bring about the enemy's defeat.7 It should be noted that guerrilla warfare is but one aspect of the broader concept of people's war.
In any military contest, technological inferiority demands an "unconventional," highly flexible approach. The fluid battle lines, lack of an absolutely centralized command, and small-unit, hit-and-run tactics were answers to particular Chinese weaknesses. But even in the early days of the Communists' struggle against the KMT, Mao cautioned against excessive "guerrillaism":
As the Red Army reaches a higher stage, we must gradually and consciously eliminate [guerrilla features] so as to make the Red Army more centralized, more unified, more disciplined and more thorough in its work--in short, more regular in character. . . . We are now on the eve of a new stage with respect to the Red Army's technical equipment and organization. We must be prepared to go over to the new stage.8
Thus, contrary to many Western conceptions, guerrilla war and people's war have never been synonymous.9 Moreover, the "regular" organization of military forces and periodic improvement of its equipment do not preclude reliance on the principles of people's war.
During the Sino-Japanese War, the difference in strategies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang set the stage for the ultimate triumph of the Communists in the civil war that followed Japan's defeat. The KMT armies fought a "conventional" retreat against the invading Japanese, abandoning the lost territory. The CCP forces, however, absorbed the Japanese advance and gained the loyalty of the peasants of northern China by offering the only visible resistance, as well as social and political reform. At war's end, the fate of a numerically and technologically superior regular army of the Kuomintang became a textbook example of the efficacy of people's war.
Attempting to reoccupy the north, the KMT army fought an elusive foe that exploited the strategic defensive. By taking major cities of the North China plain and Manchuria, the Nationalists ignored a countryside that had been won over to the Communists. The KMT advance reached its high point in March 1947 when Nationalist troops seized an empty Yenan. The loss of 100,000 of these troops in a subsequent Communist encirclement marked the beginning of the strategic stalemate phase. One by one, the Manchurian cities were surrounded by Lin Biao's 4th Field Army and their KMT garrisons captured. A combined regular and guerrilla campaign along the Peking-Hankow railroad further decimated overall KMT strength. By the summer of 1948, the PLA was ready to assume the strategic offensive against a crumbling Nationalist army.
The ultimate victory was won not by preponderant firepower or superior technology, but by a superior strategy artistically applied. The military victory gave political power to the Communists in late 1949, but it also gave them responsibility for national defense. The outbreak of war in Korea, in June 1950, left little time for a reconsideration of the relevance of people's war to the new mission of the PLA.
Chinese units went into Korea with a tactical doctrine that they had used in a different kind of war just a year earlier. Alexander L. George suggests that people's war was a failure in this new context, due to a breakdown of Chinese morale under the punishment of superior U.N. firepower.10 William W. Whitson suggests "disheartening lessons about the efficacy of guerrilla warfare, Mao's Thought, and 'people's war. ' "11 In reality, certain aspects of the doctrine became part of the Chinese military effort, but the Korean War was, from the perspectives of both China and the United Nations, a limited war with limited objectives. The total war environment of people's war never existed; that is, the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) could neither become one with the Korean masses nor attain the type of numerical superiority called for in a people's war. Neither did Chinese troops conduct a defensive-offensive campaign. Instead of luring U.N. forces in deep, CPV forces infiltrated as a regular army between the U.N. Eighth Army and the X Corps, and then went immediately on the offensive with the aim of driving U.N. forces out of Korea. The significant point is the Chinese did not pursue a people's war strategy in Korea, and broad conclusions about its viability as a doctrine of national defense that are based on the Korean outcome are not really valid.
Any army maintains a modicum of flexibility in its strategy simply by having the ability to orchestrate resources in different ways depending on the situation. This flexibility is limited, however, by the training requirements of operational doctrine. Small-unit tactics, for example, demand intensive drill, which imparts a degree of inflexibility that forces strategy to conform in the field. Chinese units went into Korea with a tactical doctrine that they had used in a different kind of war just a year earlier. They allowed this doctrine to drive their strategy onto a track built to Western specifications. Their failure was not that they employed a strategy of people's war, but, rather, that they did not.
What then was the impact of the Korean War on Chinese strategic thinking? If the Chinese indeed judged people's war a failure, China should have moved away from "guerrillaism" toward a more conventional, modern approach to warfare. In 1955, China adopted the "Regulations on the Services of Officers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army," which classified officers by field of specialty and rank into the army, navy, and air forces.12 That same year, China adopted universal military conscription. One need only glance at the pictures of the great Chinese "Marshals" in their bemedaled Soviet-style uniforms to be convinced that a new day of professionalism had dawned in the PLA. Strategists certainly should have been busy modernizing their thinking along with the uniforms and regulations. Yet three years later, Mao Zedong, at a Chengdu work conference, assessed the progress of defense building:
In the period following the liberation of the whole country, dogmatism made its appearance in both cultural and educational work. A certain amount of dogmatism was imported in basic military work, but basic principles were upheld, and you could not say that our military work was dogmatic.13
Mao reported here that although certain dogmatic, i.e., Soviet, influences had penetrated military organization, the basic principles of China's military thinking had remained unchanged.
The issue of professionalism highlighted discussions of the late 1950s. In the famous Red vs. Expert debates and the ensuing Peng Dehuai affair, political conflicts obscured the fundamental strategic positions of the two sides.14 Most Western analysts suggest that those favoring Maoist guerrillaism and unconventional warfare were in dispute with proponents of Peng Dehuais Western-style profoessionalism.15 Such views result from misconceptions of the military principles behind people's war, as well as from Western presuppositions of military professionalism found in such works as Samuel P. Huntington's The Soldier and the State. We in the West tend to apply our definitions and concepts without qualification to the Chinese scene. For example, the "efficient management of violence" called for in Western professionalism assumes the availability (or at least, the prospect) of adequate hardware. However, China has never possessed the indigenous capability to produce the required hardware to build a "professional " force; and to buy such equipment not only would be too expensive for the Chinese economy, due to the size of the Chinese forces required, but also would violate the Communist tradition of self-reliance. Additionally, Western military professionalism draws on Western (including Russian) military traditions of civil-military relations that preclude practices, such as the involvement of military men in politics, that may be fully legitimate even to the Chinese "expert."
Such an expert was Marshal Peng Dehuai, a dogmatist according to Mao and an example of the new military professional to foreign observers. A look at Peng's views on the basic tenets of people's war, however, will reveal a consistency in strategic thinking that endured the impact of the Korean War and massive doses of Soviet equipment and advice.
Peng Dehuai was criticized throughout the 1960s as one who believed that "weapons decide everything." We have no way of knowing whether this criticism was accurate or whether the attacks were politically motivated rhetoric. However, we do know Peng's views on the importance of morale in overcoming technological inferiority. Key indicators of support for the people's war approach to morale include support for party involvement in political indoctrination of troops and "democratic" relations between officers and men. A high grade on each of these indicators would mean sacrificing "professionalism" for high morale. An analysis of Peng Dehuai's speeches throughout the 1955-58 period reveals that he fully supported the menover-weapons tenet of people's war. Typical is his 1957 Army Day speech, fully one-third of which was devoted to "the several systems essential to building up the army." He listed these as "the system of Party leadership of the army," "the system of political work in the army," and "the democratic system of the army."16
It is generally known that Peng's concern with the deterioration of morale in the army inspired his criticism of the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan Plenum in 1959. The gravity of his blunt, perhaps even foolhardy, political challenge to Mao reinforces our evidence that Peng believed morale to be crucial to Chinese national defense.
The second tenet of people's war, reliance on superiority of numbers, goes beyond the mere use of reserves, for which all armies have plans. People's war calls for an exploitation of the strength of the civilian populace by assigning a crucial role to nonregular forces. In China's case, the people's militia has served alongside regular forces as a vital part of national defense. Such a construction, however, makes the defense force "unprofessional" or, as Mao put it, "guerrilla in character." Observers therefore have focused on Peng's opposition to the militia as a sign of his professional orientation.17 Overlooked is what he advocated as an alternative to the massive expansion of local militias.
In promulgating the Draft Service Law of 1955, Peng explained that the use of universal conscription would enable the army to continuously demobilize trained servicemen and build up a large reserve system.18 In a speech to the 8th National Party Congress in September 1956, he reiterated the need for a large and capable reserve:
In respect of manpower, we must have, besides the standing army, prepared a great number of officers and men as reserves. We have changed the volunteer service system into the compulsory military service system and have already begun to register and train officers and men for preparatory service.19
A year later in an Army Day speech, Peng referred to the experience and training of reserves:
To solve the contradiction of maintaining a small force in peace while having a larger force in time of war, we have improved our military service work and are ready to put in to effect the system of militiamen combined with reserve service. . . . . Taking into account China's characteristically large population our country can always maintain a militia force of tens of millions.20
While Peng Dehuai referred to the militia as a "heap of gooseflesh" when it was untrained and ill-organized, he advocated maintaining a large force of trained reserves as militia to be relied on in time of war. It is significant that he expressed these views over a four-year period, 1955-58, a period that was considered the height of Chinese military "professionalism" and expectation of continued Soviet assistance.
Peng saw morale of soldiers as crucial to China's national defense, and he advocated a reliance on her large population to achieve overwhelming numerical superiority. Both of these aspects he viewed from a people's war perspective of "oneness with the people," that is, cooperation of regular and nonregular forces with a supporting local population. This theme was clear in the aforementioned speech to the 8th NPC:
The People's Liberation Army of China gained victories because of the support of the broad masses and because of the close unity between the army and the people whose interests are completely identical with those of the army.21
He went on to list specific ways in which the PLA depended on the people: for manpower, for self-defense corps and replacements, and for supply and service by "turning every family into a factory, a depot, or a hospital."22
These views show that Peng promoted policies in conflict with Western conceptions of professionalism concerning army organization. In spite of his desire to modernize weaponry, he recognized China's technological inferiority. He also recognized the priority of overall economic modernization. Although he sought to bridge the technological gap as far as possible, he knew that to breach it China would have to rely on the fundamentals of the military principles of people's war.
Assessing Peng's views on the principle of defense-offense is more difficult, since we must deal with evolving dimensions of China's defense structure of the 1950s and 1960s. Naval, air, and nuclear forces seem by their very nature to professionalize people's war. These dimensions gave the Chinese offensive capabilities that offered the prospect for strategies not employed in earlier struggles. Yet China's newer dimensions of military capability remained technologically inferior to those of most potential adversaries. In addition, the PLA's mission had broadened equally as much as its capability. No longer was it concerned simply with winning a revolution, but now with preserving and defending it. In this new period of defense building, the old goal of maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses called for these new dimensions to be integrated into defense doctrine in order to preserve the validity of people's war's conventional concepts.
For the moment, it is sufficient for us to know that Peng Dehuai reacted quickly and vociferously against any suggestion that China was building a force with strategically offensive designs. He regarded such "imperialist" suggestions as "slanderous" and as a "cover for their own aggressive pretentions." In the speeches that we have mentioned, he reiterated many times that ". . . we have never thought of and will never think of encroaching on other nations."23
In sum, Peng's desire for modern weapons, regularization of forces, and military, rather than political, training are not in themselves antithetical to the principles of people's war as the basis of national defense. Such views were used against him by his political adversaries, but in terms of military essentials of strategy, the disputes were superficial. It seems then that the impact of the Korean War on Chinese military thinking of the decade 1950-59 was less profound than is commonly assumed. The major legacy of that conflict was not an awareness that China needed a "professional" defense force, but rather a recognition that people's war had limitations, that the PLA's mission had changed, and that people's war needed to be adapted to the "modern conditions" of a changing strategic environment.
The period that followed Peng's removal as Minister of Defense is commonly thought to have been a time of reassertion of the Red over the Expert, meaning the unconventional over the professional model of national defense organization. Observers assume that this change included a similar reversion in strategic thought. In forming such a view, however, analysts have let the character and career of Peng's successor, Lin Biao, and the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s obscure the progression of strategic thought under a new leadership. The period was marked by a concentrated effort to put "politics in command" in the PLA, by a deterioration in relations with the Soviet Union, and by China's entry into the nuclear club. These developments constituted a departure from the immediate past in some respects, but on strategic thinking their impact was less profound than many contend. Although he waved the red flag of revolution and exalted the thought of Mao Zedong, Lin Biao also was a political actor with ambitions in the political realm. In terms of national defense policy and its underlying principles, he reaffirmed the basic tenets that had guided the thinking of his predecessors.
The new chief of the largely peasant PLA found himself beset with problems of morale emanating from the chaos caused by the failure of the Great Leap Forward. One of his first campaigns was to put "politics in command." He began by sending large numbers of political workers into field units to do "extensive political and ideological work."24 Since this program was not a rectification of the officer corps but was clearly directed at the individual soldier, it should be interpreted as an effort to raise troop morale.25 At a staff conference in September 1960, Lin declared:
Political work in the army is the Communist Party's mass work in the army. It is similar to the work of mobilizing the masses in all the various localities; we are mobilizing the armed, uniformed masses. There is strength when the masses are mobilized and when there is integration of ideas and people.26
Indeed, Lin viewed this "political work," these efforts to rebuild morale, as the key to success in all other areas of military work: rear services, military training, and educational, cultural, and headquarters work. He institutionalized this idea throughout the PLA in the "Four Good Movement": superiority of men over weapons, practical experience, the interrelationship of political work and other aspects of work, and book learning.27
Peng Dehuai had drawn fire from critics for promoting military training at the expense of political indoctrination. Yet when we examine Lin's views on training priorities, we see that he too demonstrated "professional" tendencies. On 30 December 1960, Military Affairs Committee member Xiao Hua transmitted "Chief Lin's" instructions on work priorities for 1960 to committee members. In military training, he recommended that eight to nine months of the year and seven to eight hours a day be spent on exclusively military training. From his comments on a report by Deputy Chief of the General Staff Zhang Zungxun about the poor state of training, Lin revealed his overall conception of training and the "key link" of politics:
We must stress the principle that politics comes first, and politics is the commander. But, in terms of time consumed, political education should not take the first place, and still less time should be occupied by cultural activities and physical labor, as the first place should be given to military training.28
Thus Lin's "politics is the commander" policy was less a return to revolutionary fundamentals than a reaffirmation that morale was crucial to China's national defense.
Ostensibly, Lin's purpose was to restore the combat power of the PLA through concepts that held men superior to weapons. In the process, however, he did not deny the importance of the acquisition of modern weaponry. In fact, Lin acknowledged (perhaps more clearly than anyone else) the dynamic flexibility expected in "people's war under modern conditions":
In army construction on the one hand we should carry out material construction by continually improving the technical equipment of our army to strengthen its fighting power, and on the other hand carry out spiritual construction. Once a spiritual thing is turned into a conscious act of the great masses, it will become a great material force.29
Politics aside, then, we see a continuity between Peng and Lin on the importance and role of morale and the necessity for extensive military training and continuous weapons improvement. (Often, yet erroneously, the latter two of these continuities have been viewed as indicators of opposition to the principles of people's war.)
Peng and Lin were also closer than most believe in their views on the utility of nonregular forces. Although Lin emphasized the institution of the militia, a popular people's war linchpin, the "Everyone a Soldier" movement was begun by Peng and was well under way when Lin assumed command. We do know that Lin, like Peng, assigned a vital role to China's masses:
In addition to having a standing army which is politically firm and equipped with modern technical equipment, our national defense might include a militia force of several hundred million people. With such an army, it will be possible--if imperialism dares to launch an attack on our country--to sound the call of "Everyone a Soldier" and activate all the people to fight in coordination with the standing army, drawing the enemy into the inferno of all-people's war.30
Discussing "The Logic of Chinese Military Strategy," Jonathan Pollack asserts that people's war "has always remained an improbable sort of conflict," since it is "a form of warfare that no rational adversary would possibly want to encourage."31 While it is logical that China's potential adversaries would avoid such an inferno and perhaps resort to other lethal strategies, the same logic confirms the value of a national defense strategy based on people's war. Many nations having greater economic strength, more advanced technology, and smaller and far more defendable terrain do not enjoy the security from conventional attack that China enjoys. With scarce resources and immense requirements, China has formulated perhaps the only strategy that could so effectively deny an enemy the option of a large-scale conventional assault on Chinese territory. Paradoxically, "modernization" of China's armed forces by moving away from the doctrine of people's war could be extremely dangerous, since it would undermine the basis of a strong conventional deterrence.32 Neither Peng Dehuai nor Lin Biao sought to change these principles during their respective tenures in office. Lin faced far more profound strategic challenges, however.
The withdrawal of Soviet aid and technicians in 1960 changed the entire strategic picture in Asia. Without a nuclear umbrella, China faced a United States still angry over the Quemoy-Matsu incidents of 1958. As the 1960s wore on, the dimensions of the threat increased with a steady buildup of Soviet forces to the north and of U.S. forces in Vietnam. In 1965, Lin made his famous speech, "Long Live the Victory of People's War," the meaning of which has been the subject of much debate. The general consensus in recent literature is that it was a statement to countries engaged in revolution, particularly Vietnam, that they would have the moral, but not material, support of China. What should not be discounted, however, is a more literal interpretation that it was a definitive statement directed toward both the United States and the Soviet Union to declare the potential of, and China's adherence to, a people's war approach to national defense. China had organized her defenses to such a degree that to conquer her by land attack would be an impossible task. Before reviewing the historical experience of the "great victory of people's war in China," Lin points out that:
In every conceivable way U.S. imperialism and its lackeys are trying to extinguish the revolutionary flames of people's war. The Khrushchev revisionists, fearing people's war like the plague, are heaping abuse on it. The two are colluding to prevent and sabotage people's war.33
The "sabotage" of people's war was a real threat in the nuclear era. Although secure from major conventional attack, China was extremely vulnerable to a large-scale nuclear strike. So acute was the crisis that the effectiveness of the entire people's war foundation of defense was questionable.
It became the unfolding challenge for Chinese strategists to formulate defense policies that would restore the viability of a concept that denies technology the crucial role. The nature of the challenge is reflected in the New China News Agency announcement of China's thermonuclear test in 1967:
The successful hydrogen bomb (test) . . . marks the entry of the development of China's national defense science into an entirely new stage. It has dealt another telling blow at the nuclear monopoly and nuclear blackmail of the two nuclear overlords--the United States and the Soviet Union.34
China's frantic drive to achieve at least a regional nuclear capability and the subsequent building of her nuclear force can thus be seen as an attempt, through nuclear deterrence, to deny an enemy the nuclear strategic option--an option that would undermine the viability of China's defensive application of people's war.
The year 1965 saw drastic changes in China's military organization and leadership. The impact of these changes upon strategic thought remains obscure. On 22 May, the system of ranks which had been in effect for a decade was abolished. Associated with the Red vs. Expert debate, this event is seen as a herald of the Cultural Revolution. Many regard its opening event as the purge of PLA Chief of Staff Lo Ruiching. These events have been interpreted as a rejection of "professionalist" ideas left over from the Peng Dehuai era. Few observers, however, have paid adequate attention to the changing strategic picture in Asia and the impact that growing Chinese hostility toward the Soviet Union was having in China's domestic politics.
After the system of ranks was adopted in 1955, numerous campaigns against its harmful effects revealed its inapplicability to the Chinese scene. These effects became fully apparent after the withdrawal of Soviet advisors. The system's Soviet model failed to regard the unique relationships between Chinese officers and soldiers and the difference in roles of Chinese and Soviet political commissars. Through its association with a nation that had "betrayed" the revolution and the Chinese people, the rank system no doubt also became profoundly awkward and embarrassing. The official explanation for the system's abolition appeared in a Jiefangjun Bao editorial of 24 May:
This system came into effect from 1955 onwards, after victory throughout the country. Ten years of practice has proved that it is not in conformity with our army's glorious tradition, with the close relations between officers and men, between higher and lower levels, and between the army and the people.35
The article further pointed out that ". . . the lower levels submit to the higher levels and the fighters respect the cadres; this is done consciously by every soldier for the needs of the revolution and does not depend on the operation of ranks or grades."36 The "needs of the revolution" in this regard concerned two of the fundamental principles of people's war--the superiority of men over weapons through high morale, and dependence on superiority of numbers through close relations between the army and the people. The change of regulations mirrored a rejection of Soviet methods that permeated all areas of Chinese development. It was not a return to "Redness" that was significant, but rather a return to independence in PLA organization. Similarly, a return to a system of ranks today, an event that Western professionals aivait eagerly as a sign of China's coming of age, would not indicate "professionalism" as we define it. Neither would it indicate a change in basic Chinese strategic thought. As we have seen, the accouterments of professionalism did not change Chinese defense concepts in the 1950s under Peng Dehuai.
Similarly, the purge of Lo Ruiching in the 1960s has been viewed as a rejection of military professionalism. Lo had been associated with the pursuit of advanced weaponry from the Soviet Union in the face of the growing U.S. threat in Vietnam. In the Cultural Revolution his "weapons decide everything" attitude was widely criticized. Reportedly, he favored an all-out thrust in nuclear weapons development. He even challenged the authority of political commissars. Like Peng, however, none of Lo's recommendations advocated the scrapping of the people's war approach to national defense. His objection to political commissars was in regard to their abuse, not their use. He saw the commissar's role as did Mao, not as a political watchdog, but as a political leader, i.e., a morale builder. Disputes over the place of nuclear weapons in Chinese strategy were common, but even the chairman himself, according to the official press in 1967, had issued a "great historic call" in 1958 to develop atom and hydrogen bombs within ten years.37 Accordingly, the explosion of China's nuclear bomb was announced with fanfare as a great accomplishment of Mao Zedong Thought. Lo's greatest mistake seems to have been political rather than strategic, centering around his persistent Soviet sympathies. Thus his fall should not be attributed to his objection to people's war as the basis for national defense.
There were, of course, many military issues involved in the Cultural Revolution. For the most part, however, these were internal political issues related only marginally to national defense concepts. It should not surprise us that people's war, closely associated with Mao Zedong, was exalted during the great campaign; but this exaltation was usually within a political, rather than a strategic, context. Because it is outside the scope of this article to explore the political ramifications of the doctrine, I shall mention merely that political turbulence characterized the Chinese military from 1965 to 1968. The next era of strategic development began with the dramatic escalation of the Soviet threat in 1969 and the fall of Lin Biao in 1971.
Party leaders at the Third Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the CCP in 1950 laid down a fundamental principle of strategic policy of the People's Republic of China: In order to modernize the military, China must first modernize her economy. The policy was buffeted by the Korean War and the massive influence of Soviet aid and advice in the early 1950s, but it was reaffirmed in Mao's famous 1956 speech, "On the Ten Major Relationships":
In the period of the first Five-Year Plan, military and administrative expenditures accounted for 30 percent of the total expenditures of the state budget. This proportion is much too high. In the period of the second Five-Year Plan, we must reduce it to around 20 percent, so that more funds can be released for building more factories and turning out more machines. . . . We must strengthen our national defense, and for that purpose we must first of all strengthen our work in economic construction.38
After Mao's death, this principle was reaffirmed again with the widespread republication of the original speech on 1 January 1977. To our knowledge, this relationship between economic development and military modernization has never been challenged by any of the major military leaders of China. It forms the backdrop for all discussions of military modernization, the theme of defense building in the period following the fall of Lin Biao.
Nevertheless, events in the 1970s demonstrated that Chinese strategists have continued their efforts to maintain the viability of people's war as the basis for national defense. This continuity in Chinese thought has been missed by many Western analysts. William Whitson describes the 1970s as "The Revolution Betrayed," citing the ascendancy of "professional" military men to Party and government positions.39 Ellis Joffe states that after almost 20 years of wavering, "The PLA has returned to professionalism."40 Jonathan Pollack sees in the 1970s "The Decline of People's War."41
In Western eyes it is logical to explain the unfolding of military thought in the terms of professionalism. China's recent emphasis on weapons procurement, modernization of defense industries, and nuclear forces seem to support this view of Chinese defense trends. It is also logical to question, as Pollack does, the rationality of a particular form of warfare. Few would argue that any major nuclear conflict is rational, yet today nuclear weapons retain a very real and vital role in the defense structures of the Soviet Union and the United States. Similarly, although the Chinese had developed the deterrent aspect of people's war to the point of confidence that it accomplished its intended purpose, it would be absurd to suggest that they would relax in that confidence and assume that a major war with the Soviet Union will never be fought. The Soviets began to deploy large forces along the Sino-Soviet border during the Cultural Revolution. By 1969 they had 21 divisions in place, 2 of which were in Mongolia. The Soviets continued their force buildup at the rate of about 5 divisions per year until, at the end of 1974, they had 45 divisions deployed, 8 of them tank divisions. That was 14 divisions more than they had deployed in central Europe. In addition, one-fourth of the Soviet Air Force was deployed in the Far East--a force that included their latest, most sophisticated aircraft.42
The major events that shaped Chinese strategic thinking in the 1970s were this increased Soviet threat and the gradual warming of relations with the United States and the West. While the fall of Lin Biao and the death of Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao had drastic effects on the military and its political role in the People's Republic, the effects of these internal events on strategic policy have been minimal. Even the change in threat perception has not had significant effect, for the Chinese had developed their strategy under a dual threat in the 1960s and had produced a credible regional nuclear deterrent by the 1970s--a nuclear capability that has steadily increased in range since then. As People's Republic now approaches its fourth decade, the Chinese have ranked modemization of national defense fourth among the four modernizations announced in their development program in 1975.43 AIone, these events mean little, but combined with continued endorsement of "people's war under modern conditions," they indicate that the Chinese are satisfied that their defense strategy not only is sufficient for the moment but will suffice at least until the overall modernization of the economy is accomplished.44 Their target for that achievement is the year 2000. However, the Chinese probably anticipate a long-term process of economic development. Thus, people's war is likely to form the heart of Chinese national defense policies for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the most telling statement on China's continuing approach to defense strategy comes from an article published in 1979 by the National Defense Scientific and Technological Commission, the group that forms probably the strongest Chinese constituency for modernization of defense weaponry:
In waging war, we have relied and will continue to rely on people's war. However, we must realize that any future war against aggression will be a people's war under modern conditions.45
The entire article attacks the "Gang of Four" notion that "when the satellite went up, the Red Flag came down." Its major assertion is that modern weapons are fully consistent with Mao's teachings and do not bear on the question of loyalty to the doctrine of people's war.
Political debate since Mao's death in 1976 has fallen clearly into distinguishable lines. The actors identify themselves with their positions on certain issues. People's war, as the concept behind national defense, has not been such an identifier. Debate on military strategy has been conspicuous by the absence of substance. While multiple approaches to modernization of agriculture, industry, science, and technology have surfaced, only minor variations have occurred in one basic military line--people's war under modern conditions. That China shops in foreign arms markets is loudly proclaimed and analyzed in Western circles. That she is reluctant to buy is not. What observers have not analyzed are the strategic implications of the types of weapons China currently fields, and in what new types she has shown interest. Space precludes such an analysis here. It is clear, however, that the routine organization, equipment, and deployment of Chinese defense forces have not changed radically in thirty years. Currently, China shows interest in antitank missiles more than tanks. She has considered more antiaircraft missile systems than airplanes. In short, China remains interested in defensive weapons that are cheap enough to deploy in large numbers. No support for a "modernization" of Chinese strategic thought seems apparent in these preferences.
If we look at what various Chinese leaders say about national defense policy, even after a skeptical analysis of the "Pekingese," we should find it difficult to deny a continuity in defense thinking. Mao's immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, not surprisingly echoed Lin Biao at a May 1978 NPC work conference:
Politics is the commander, the soul in everything. . . . Only by closely combining men with high proletarian awareness and modern weapons and equipment will it be possible for us to demonstrate truly great fighting power.46
The old Marshal, Ye Jianying, stated the mission of the PLA on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic:
Together with the people's militia, [the PLA) should take an active part in and defend the four modernizations program and be vigilant at all times to guard the frontiers of our motherland.47
There is no hint that a movement toward "professionalism" will turn the Chinese away from the principles that they have reiterated over the decades.
Our spectrum of opinion would not be complete without the view of Deng Xiaoping, current chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and acknowledged regent of the PRC since the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee (December 1978). In an interview, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Deng how the Chinese could possibly think to compete with the tremendous efficiency of the Soviet war machine. Deng's answer:
(He laughs). Listen, China is poor and our military equipment is very backward, but we have our traditions. For a long time we summed up the experience for defeating enemies with advanced weapons, and this in spite of our poor equipment. Our territory is vast, our people have learned to have the endurance to carry on a long war, to defeat strength with weakness. Anyone who wants to invade China must consider this fact. . . .48
Ms. Fallaci pressed for clarification by stating that a Soviet war with China would mean world war, which would mean nuclear war and the end of everything. Deng's response provides a revealing picture of the Chinese attitude toward total war under "modern conditions":
I agree on the first part. If the Soviet Union invades us, it will not just be a local war. But I don't agree with the rest. Precisely because both sides have so many nuclear weapons, the possibility exists that the third world war will he a conventional war and not a nuclear war.49
Believing, then, that the next war will be conventional and knowing that they remain technologically inferior, the Chinese remain loyal to the military principles that have served them well.
UTILIZING the principles of men over weapons, superiority of numbers, and defensive-offensive, the Chinese Communists overwhelmed the more powerful Guomindang armies in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s they made the strategic transition to make people's war the basis of national defense under the protection of the nuclear umbrella of the Soviet Union. Losing the luxury of Soviet protection at the end of the decade, China had to rely on the deterrent value of people's war while she developed her own nuclear capability in the 1960s. While validating the effectiveness of people's war as a conventional deterrent, China conducted successful warhead and delivery system tests, which gave her a credible regional nuclear capability. Strategists believed that a regional deterrent would suffice while China continued to enhance her strategic force capabilities. Having achieved a nuclear deterrence, the Chinese have assumed that any major conflict would be on the conventional scale. It is at this juncture that people's war under modern conditions became and remains a fully developed strategy of deterrence.
Obviously, this is a strategy of total war and does not apply to limited local conflicts, such as the Korean War, the Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962, or the Sino-Vietnam Conflict of 1979. China took her tactical doctrine and other aspects of people's war into these clashes, but the principles of people's war were not tested in them. Neither would a limited Soviet incursion be an occasion for people's war. To improve her capability to deal with limited conflicts of this nature, China must find supplementary strategies. Thus, even China's building of a rapid deployment force or several fully modernized divisions would not indicate the abandonment of people's war as her central concept of national defense.
A broader perspective on people's war indicates that many of our assumptions about Chinese military policies are ill-founded. Arms, for example, may never prove to be that elusive commodity that will open up the "China market. " We should, however, understand the logic of China's shopping lists and the timing of her purchase orders. Similarly, military professionalism may not be the issue we in the West have built it up to be. People's war has been a strategic concept that has seen wide variations in its general lines of development. It remains at the center of China's national defense policy under the modern conditions of the present, and it will continue to be the focal concept of a national defense strategy of deterrence at least until China's industrial economy stands coequal with those of her potential adversaries. Although a strategy that acknowledges material weakness, it is not without teeth. Should her deterrent system fail, China's enemy might find to their professional surprise that the armed forces of China can, indeed, be both Red and Expert.
West Point, New York
1. Various critical weaknesses of the strategy are explored by Alexander George in The Chinese Communist Army in Action (New York, 1967); Harvey Nelson in The Chinese Military System (Boulder, Colorado, 1981); Ellis Joffe and Gerald Segal in "The Chinese Army and Professionalism," Problems of Communism, November-December 1978, p. 6; and Paul Godwin in Doctrine, Strategy and Ethic: The Modernization of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Air University Research Division, 1978). The underlying assumption in these and many other scholarly analyses, media reports, and government studies is that people's war as a strategic concepts has been in the process of decline since liberation and stands little realistic chance against the more modern concepts and technologies of Chinas potential adversaries. Perhaps most typical are the conclusions of Jonathan Pollack in "China as a Military Power," Military Power and Policy in Asian States (Boulder, Colorado, 1980) and "The Logic of Chinese Military Strategy," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January 1979.
2. Dr. Paul H. B. Godwin, "Chinese Defense Modernization," Air University Review, November-December 1981, p. 17.
3. New York Times, 26 August 1982, p. All,
4. In particular, see "Problems of Strategy in China's Revolutionary War," "Problems of Strategy in Guerrilla War," "On Protracted War," and "Problems of War and Strategy," all in Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Works (Peking, 1967).
5. Mao Tse-tung, "The Struggle in the Chingkang Mountains," Selected Works (hereafter referred to as SW), Vol. I (Peking, 1967), pp. 81-83.
6. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 154.
7. Ibid, pp. 137-40.
8. Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Works, pp. 139-40.
9. As but a few examples, Alexander George's The Chinese Communist Army in Action (New York, 1967), William Whitsons The Chinese High Command (New York, 1973), and Gerald Corr's The Chinese Red Army (New York, 1974) demonstrate a guerrilla-war-equals-people's-war perspective.
10. Alexander George, The Chinese Communist Army in Action (New York, 1967), pp. VIII-IX.
11. William Whitson, The Chinese High Command (New York, 1973), p. 462.
12. Current Background (CB), Hong Kong, No. 312, pp. 1-11.
13. Stuart Schram, editor, Chairman Mao Talks to the People (New York, 1974), quote from a 10 March 1958 conference at Chengdu, p. 48.
14. The Chinese after 1949 faced the problem of when to consolidate the gains of the revolution and limit mass revolutionary movement. Those who proposed continuing revolution, mass movements, and an emphasis on ideology were the "Reds." Those who looked toward ordered development and improved technology were the "Experts." The ensuing "debates" were, in fact, intense political conflicts among personalities. As such, they obscure many continuities in basic principles.
15. See, for example, Ellis Joffe's Party and Army: Professionalism and Political Control in the Chinese Officer Corps, 1949-1964 (Cambridge, 1965), and Harlan W. Jenck's From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945-81 (Boulder, 1982).
16. CB, No. 1584, pp. 9-10.
17. John Gittings, "China's Militia," China Quarterly (CQ), April-June 1964, p. 107.
18. "Reports on the Draft Service Law," 16 July 1955, Survey of the China Mainland Press (SCMP), Hong Kong, No. 1090. Peng viewed conscription as a way to reduce standing army manpower levels through the buildup of reserves, thereby maintaining the capability to mobilize for a People's War while at the same time saving money that could be spent on developing an industrial economy. This summarizes the precarious position of the Chinese in the late 1950s. Although they realized the need for modern weapons, they would be unable to rely on them until the economy was sufficiently industrialized and productive to enable them to arm their forces in a manner in keeping with independence and self-reliance. We can therefore understand their lack of emphasis on weapons in the "New Training Program . . . " of 1958.
19. CB, No. 422, p. 7.
20. Ibid., No. 1584, pp. 9-10.
21. Ibid., No. 422, p. 4.
23. Ibid., p. 6.
24. SCMP, No. 2358, 14 October 1960, p. 1.
25. Ibid. This report states that from May to September 1960, "120,000 army functionaries went to work in the companies at the grassroots levels."
26. Ibid., p. 2.
28. "It Is Necessary to Understand Fully the Important Changes in the Training of our Armed Forces," Selected Works of Lin Piao, China Problems Research Center (Hong Kong, 1970), p. 290.
29. SCMP, No. 2270, p. 4.
30. "Hold High the Red Banner of Mao Tse-tungs Military Thought and Advance in Big Strides," Hung Chi, No. 19, Selected Works of Lin Piao, p. 204.
31. Jonathan Pollack, "The Logic of Chinese Military Strategy," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, January 1979, pp. 24-25.
32. Ibid. Pollack has noted an "absence of undue anxiety on the part of defense policy makers." To him it is a "confidence which mystifies external observers." In the light of todays deterrent strategies, Chinese confidence is not at all without justification.
33. "Long Live the Victory of Peoples War," Selected Works of Lin Piao, pp. 315-16.
34. SCMP, No. 3954, p. 2.
35. Ibid., No. 3466, p. 2.
37. SCMP, No. 3965, p. 13.
38. Mao, SW, Vol. V, pp. 288-89.
39. Whitson, p. 535.
40. Joffe and Segal, p. 1.
41. Pollack, pp. 24-25.
42. Data from The Military Balance (London, 1969-74).
43. Jurgen Domes, "The Gang of Four and Hua Kuo-feng," China Quarterly, No. 71, September 1977.
44. See PRC Press quotes, Foreign Broadcast Information ServiceChina (FBIS-CHI), 74-149, p. E-5, the comments of Yeh Chien-ying at the Army Day Defense Ministry Reception, FBIS-CHI, 75-149, or, more significantly, Su Yus article "Great Victory for Chairman Maos Guideline on War," Survey of Peoples Republic of China Press, No. 6406, 19 August 1977, and Xu Xiangqians article from Hung Chi, "Strive to Achieve Modernization in National Defense," particularly pp. L15-L16, FBIS-CHI, 79-203.
45. FBIS-CHI, 79-15, p. E-4.
46. FBIS-CHI, 30 May 1978, p. E-2.
47. Beijing Review, No. 40, 5 October 1979, p. 31.
48. Washington Post, 1 September 1980, p. A-10.
Major Thomas G. Waller, Jr., USA (USMA; M.A., University of Michigan) is an Assistant Professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Previously, he had several assignments with the 1st Battalion 80th Field Artillery, Aschaffenburg, Germany, and served as Firing Battery Commander, 1st Battalion 3d Field Artillery, Fort Hood, Texas. Major Waller has attended the Airborne and Ranger Schools and the U.S. Army Field Artillery School.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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